Drones, another tool for Search and Rescue
September 27, 2016
Search and Rescue may soon be exploring the possibility of adding an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or drone as most people know them, to it’s tool box. Over the last several years there has been an explosive growth in the UAV industry. They have been used for applications in agriculture, energy, mining, transportation, real estate and SAR. They are being used as a resource for reducing cost and mitigating risk to humans. Rescue agencies around the world have conducted countless successful missions with UAVs.
In 2014, a four-year-old girl in Siberia had gone missing for several days and ground crews were unable locate her. After less than an hour after deployment of a UAV, she was located and reunited with her family. Norwegian rescuers use a drone equipped with infrared sensors to look for buried avalanche victims. A window washer on a high rise in Abu Dhabi was rescued via microphone instructions given to him through a UAV deployed to assist him after his lift malfunctioned. Mesa County Sheriff assisted Grand Junction firefighters in detecting hot spots through a UAV mounted infrared camera and conducting the subsequent arson investigation following the White Hall church fire in 2011.
As rescuers, we are always on the lookout for beneficial applications that will make our operations safer, improve our response time, and improve our efficiency in the field. The first and largest benefit is safety. Often times, our members are sent into the field without much knowledge of the terrain they are entering and are subject to dangerous conditions such as dead standing trees. A two-person operator team can deploy a UAV to scout ahead, looking for obstacles, hazards, and unexpected encounters such as hunters and wildlife.They can be flown at a relatively low altitude of about 50-100 feet above ground level, dramatically increasing our situational awareness through a birds-eye view and greatly improving our chances of locating the lost individual. They can also be deployed to monitor rescue operations and give incident commanders real time information on the mission at hand.
Another benefit is cost.
While the upfront price of a UAV may range anywhere from $500 to several thousand dollars. The long term benefit of having to use less manpower and resources would far outweigh the price tag of a small UAV. Imagine a lost or injured hunter calling 911 for help with spotty cell phone reception. Through cell phone signals, we can get rough idea of where he is and begin deploying ground teams. If the search prove difficult, a Flight For Life helicopter may be called to assist us in an aerial search. And while there is no cost to Search and Rescue for their services the cost of flying those helicopters usually falls in the $2,000-3,000 range. But if we were to deploy a UAV instead, the cost of acquiring and training to use a UAV could easily offset the cost of deploying an expensive helicopter operation.
There are other uses that can further our search capabilities. Infrared cameras can spot people in dense trees and low light where a normal camera would be relatively ineffective. Beacon sensors can be used to detect a buried subject in an avalanche. Small payloads of water and basic medical supplies can be dropped to a subject awaiting rescue.
The team has a few hurdles to overcome before moving forward with using UAV’s, the FAA being at the forefront. Although they have recently relaxed rules about UAV operations under Part 107 regulations, there are still several steps an agency must take in order to be compliant with the regulations before conducting civil operations. Pilot certification- In order for a person to operate a UAV in a commercial or civil application they must first obtain a remote pilot airmen certificate, the testing process is similar to that of someone applying for a pilot license. The next step is certifying the aircraft- Each UAV that an agency intends to use must obtain a registration number and demonstrate that each aircraft is airworthy.
Lastly, training crews to fly and be knowledgable of all the Part 107 rules. The aircraft remains within visual line of site of the operator or observer unless the agency can obtain a waiver for operations beyond line of site. Daylight only operations only unless the agency can obtain a waiver for night time operations. Cannot fly above 400 feet above ground level or within five miles of an airport or above anyone not directly involved in the operation. There are several other rules that crews must be aware of as well.
So while there are many steps to take yet. Grand County Search and Rescue may someday benefit from adding another tool that will allow us to operate safely and efficiently.
Josh Schroeder is a support member with Grand County Search & Rescue and has volunteered with the team for the last year. He studies aerospace science at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com or on Facebook/GCSAR.